Results of a study published in January 2017 showed that palmitic acid (a major part of palm oil) boosts metastases (spread of cancer) through CD36 — a specific protein found in cancer cells that is responsible for taking up fatty acids.
In May 2016, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) claimed in a statement that palm oil “generated more of a potentially carcinogenic contaminant than other vegetable oils when refined at temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius,” which has caused controversy over the product since. The EFSA statement said palm oil generates glycidyl fatty acid ester (GE) when the refining process reaches temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius.
However, Donald Siahaan, senior food technologist at the Indonesian Oil Palm Research Institute, said that while GE has been proven to be carcinogenic, it still does not warrant a ban on palm oil as no epidemiological study has been conducted on its impact to human health.
Siahaan said there is no international standard set for GE concentration in palm oil and the contaminant naturally exists in many foods including those processed from soybeans. He also added that research concerning GE has been limited to laboratories, adding that what happens in the laboratory does not always happen in the body due to so many factors which influence chemical reactions.
According to Siahaan, only a long-term epidemiological study, involving a large number of participants and done over at least 10 years, can establish the level of risk in consuming palm oil. Siahaan’s arguments echoed a defence of palm oil put up by Ferrero, the manufacturers of Nutella, the popular spread, following the EFSA statement. Ferrero uses up some 185,000tonnes of palm oil annually.
However, Hellen Knutzen, chair of the Contaminants in the Food Chain panel of the EFSA that investigated palm oil, says there is enough evidence to conclude that glycidol is genotoxic and carcinogenic. Knutzen said that in risk assessments of compounds like GE, evidence from human epidemiological studies are not needed in order to conclude on the human health risk.
Knutzen says that assessors investigate the margin between the dose that causes cancer in experimental animals and the dose that humans are exposed to. If the margin is not sufficiently large, it is concluded that there is a potential human health concern.
While EFSA is not empowered to make regulations, the European Commission is contemplating steps that may include setting permissible levels of GE in food items.
Siahaan says Indonesia’s agricultural ministry plans to conduct its own survey of GE concentrations in palm oil across the country. Indonesia, the world’s biggest palm oil producer, has a target to produce 40 million tonnes of palm oil annually by 2020.